Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Triple crusty egg rolls with pastrami, cabbage and asparagus; pork baos (buns) with their customary sweet pork filling and traditional shrimp shumai — these weren’t necessarily the same old tropes of Chinese cuisine on display the very first day that Empire Chinese opened its doors for business on Thursday.
Portland's new Empire Chinese Restaurant
Going to a restaurant's Day One is tricky business. But I was so excited over the prospect of a different sort of Chinese restaurant in Portland that I couldn’t wait. I went for both lunch and dinner on the same day and sampled as much as I could.
There's no mistaking when you're sitting at the bar that you're about to have Chinese food
Yet even after dealing with opening day jitters and quirks, the restaurant got its message across clearly. The kitchen is putting out very inventive fare, with the most authentic nod to a Chinese menu north of Boston’s Chinatown.
The space itself plays with décor wrapped around a blend of 1950s kitsch and Scandinavian blond and brown modern, an easy juxtaposition of textures and colors that seem just right for the art-walk prowlers who peregrinate Congress Street.
The dining space at lunchtime is an inviting light, bright room
At noontime the room was nearly full. It’s a stark change from the dank, old Empire Dine and Dance that existed before the building got sold to Todd Bernard (formerly of Space Gallery) and Theresa Chan, a veteran restaurateur in Maine.
Empire delivers on classic Chinese cuisine up to a point. You won’t find Hunan, Sichuan or Mandarin specialties per se. Rather it’s a more creative, if not trendy approach that we so easily call fusion nowadays. It’s based on Cantonese cooking, which is more true to itself here than we’re used to.
So far on first night the room received a steady progression of diners; this will surely become the place to be for Portlanders looking for a lively venue for dinner and other amusements
More first-nighters at Empire
Amazingly Empire did a good job with accoustics; even as the place filled up one could still have a conversation with friends
Trailblazing chefs like Joe Ng at Redfarm in New York and Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York typify the new wave of Chinese chefs re-interpreting the world’s oldest cuisine. And this sensibility reveals itself at Empire.
That said, I’m not sure who’s at the helm. The press releases say that its dim sum menu is prepared by a renowned Chinese chef from San Francisco who’s practiced the art of small plates for 40 years. And when I asked co-owner Bernard about the pork buns I had just tasted he answered, “I can’t tell you exactly what’s in them because no one in the kitchen speaks English for me to find out.” In matters of cuisine he defers to Chan, who was not there when I visited. Regardless, a brigade of native chefs are doing it right.
Empire's classic steamed pork buns
But let me say this about the pork buns: These were one of the best I had since I was introduced to them by a Shanghainese friend who took me to a dumpling shop in New York’s Chinatown years ago.
The pastrami egg roll, however, is another story. It’s the dish de rigeur of newfangled artisanal Chinese restaurants these days where it’s often dubbed the pastrami-Reuben egg roll — nothing more than a riff on Katz’s Deli meets Chinese take-out.
What I loved about Empire’s was the incredibly rich, triple crispy casing, which our knowledgeable waitress described as an intricate process that she’s seen the dim sum chefs perform in the kitchen to achieve this incredible texture.
Empire's pastrami egg rolls with honey-mustard dipping sauce
The shrimp shumai were classic — dumpling dough filled with a fine mixture of ground shrimp, very well spiced, moist and thoroughly enjoyable. You won’t, however, find dishes like crab Rangoon on the menu, which is otherwise as authentic as chopped suey at the Maine Mall food hall.
Empire's steamed shrimp shumai
Back at dinner the nighttime crowd is far different from the more staid passersby who may have stumbled in at the noon hour. After dark there’s a diverse crowd ranging from deft 20-somethings to older, more moneyed swells.
Now with only eight hours of experience under its belt the restaurant is running at warp speed. Incredibly, Empire Chinese seems like it’s been there for a lifetime.
At dinner I tried the Peking steamed buns with seared duck, hoisin and scallions. They were deliciously flavorful, anything with hoisin being unmistakably good. These were followed by garlic green beans and salted daikon, a perfect dish for vegans and carnivores alike.
Steamed buns with seared duck and scallions
For counterpoint, spinach dumplings with water chestnuts and mushrooms were perfectly composed in their wrappers, fragrant with spices and scents typical of the dish. One of the larger plates I enjoyed was the sizzling teriyaki chicken, marinated and wok fried. Here was a typical dish that shows the kitchen’s light hand — food not overly sauced, sticky sweet or greasy, a temperance of flavor and texture.
Another good dim sum choice, steamed dumplings with spinach
Straight from the wok a stir-fry of spicy green beans
A great rendidtion of sizzling teriyaki chicken
The pacing of dishes at Empire trumps the usual progression of courses customary in Chinese restaurants. All the dishes came out at once rather than small plates arriving first followed by the larger portions. If this is their style then it should be reconsidered. Other issues like the tea not being hot enough or some of the foods served lukewarm are probably due to first-night frets and foibles of a new eatery's growing pains.
Desserts should not be missed because they go beyond the typical drill of kumquats or green-tea ice cream. Here, for example, the kitchen plays with its egg roll dough, filling it with chocolate and other sweets to finish off the meal perfectly.
Empire's take on the chocolate eclair--here the fried egg roll dough encases a chocolate filling served with fortune-cookie ice cream and chocolate sauce on the side
The menu is very concise but full of enough options. Parlaying its stance as a dining establishment serving Chinese soul food — comforting and delicious — what has emerged is a new neighborhood haunt that Portlanders have long wanted and can now embrace without hesitation.Tweet
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.